Playing The Apocalypse – being a better player in PBTA games

Last weekend, I was at Revelation – possibly the world’s only PBTA face to face con. It’s in Sheffield, UK, and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to get a big dose of PBTA or PBTA-adjacent gaming (games of FITD and similar drifts are allowed). It got me thinking on best practices for playing these games, which often take a bit of a shift in mindset to get right. There’s tons of GM/MC advice around, but I think these games – particularly the factiony / PvP ones – need a shift in mindset from everyone at the table, and so here are my player top tips

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

Talk Hard

If you’re having a ‘proper conversation’ with a PC, or NPC, try to push it towards a move. What are you really trying to get out of them, and how can you get it? It’s fine to remind the GM what you’re shooting at, or to negotiate with them for what you’re going for, but in PBTA the split between roleplaying/talking scenes and action/combat scenes in many cases doesn’t exist. 

Often the “Find Information” move is underused in PBTA games – the questions you get to ask often develop plot really well – so pitch towards them where you can. You should expect to be triggering moves when you’re, for instance, asking about the murder or trying to persuade the cops to leave you alone.

Think One Step – But Only One Step – Ahead

In some player-driven games like Urban Shadows or Apocalypse World itself, there’s often an expectation on players to drive plot. The GM might well turn to you and ask what your PC does next, or even ask you to set the scene. This can be daunting! To avoid this, think about what your character’s next step is, and be ready to try and achieve that. It might be fairly loose – if I’m starting out as a Vamp in Urban Shadows, my first plan might just be to get some allies – so I’ll be visiting some established NPC or PC and trying to negotiate a mutual deal.

A word of caution – PBTA games thrive on twisting plots and loyalties, so thinking more than one step ahead is unlikely to be a fruitful exercise. But having a broad plan of action, and your PC’s next step, will give you something to shoot at.

Be An XP Hunter!

Many PBTA games have advancement, or XP systems, deliberately built to drive good play. So keep one eye on how you can earn XP, and be prepared to do it. For instance, in SCUP, you get an XP for the first Honor move you do each session, so you’re incentivised to bring your Faction into play and spend Honor points – do it! 

Many games have moves that allow you to earn XP by complying with other players – it’s absolutely fine and encouraged to set up these situations so you can both earn XP. Advancement will just unlock more options, many of which will drive plot and offer more interesting things to do, so feel free to use this as a driver when you’re picking your next step to do.

Don’t Overthink It

Playing RPGs in your head is rubbish. Your big secret plan, or long-contemplated backstory, is worth nothing if it isn’t shared with the table. This is always true, but even more true in PBTA! If you want something, go ahead and get it – don’t worry about showing your hand, or sharing your secrets, at the table. PBTA overwhelmingly works better when players know one another’s secrets and can bring them into play as well – as an author or an audience as well as an actor – so wear your heart on your sleeve.

Do What The Game Says

Having a moves sheet in front of you helps to show you the kind of things you can do (but obviously don’t look to it for the answer of what to do – for that you need your next step plan). The game will likely have advice on the playbook, or in the text, about best practices for play – and Player Principles – these are an actual part of the game. If you’re not following the Player Principles, the game won’t work – like MC Moves and Agendas, they’re as much part of the game as rolling 2d6 and adding a bonus.

So, there’s my top tips for PBTA play. If you’ve got any that you think I’ve missed (or that you think I’m wrong about – I’m aware there’s a school of thought that says move sheets should be kept MC-only!) – let me know in the comments!

Play is King

I’ve started a new year resolution in 2023 – in 2022 I managed 86 game sessions through the year, and I’m determined to get it back over 100 (2021 was 106, and 2020 was 161 sessions – wonder why that was?) in 2023. So far, so good; I played 12 sessions in January, a month without any big conventions for me, and giving me a projected total of 140 sessions which would be a nice return to form (yes, I do have a spreadsheet).

While you’re reading this, I should tell you about my Patreon. Patrons get access to content 7 days before they hit this site, the chance to request articles or content, and the chance to play in one-shot games, for a very reasonable backer level of £2 per month. If you like what you read, want to support the blog, and have the funds for it, please consider supporting here. Telling people about the blog, and sharing links/retweeting is much appreciated also – thanks!

I’m determined in 2023 to play as much as I can, and while I’ve got a few advantages to doing this (I’m relatively short of family commitments and have both a group of fairly local conventions and one-shot days I’m a regular at, and a group of gaming buddies all in the same time zone) – there’s a few approaches that I think can help everyone get more games in.

Playing Games Is Better Than Reading Games

I guess first we should ask “Why?” There’s a big section of the hobby that consists of collecting and reading games and game paraphernalia, and this isn’t meant to be a slight on that. Well, maybe it is, just a little bit. But games are meant to be played, not read! I’ve lost track of the number of rules that didn’t really shine until the dice hit the table, or plots that were better in the playing than the reading. A few years ago, I decided to make all my reviews on here play-based, and I’ve stuck to that – every review or written piece here is based on a game session, and that’s how it should be.

Make Game Nights Resilient

There’s numerous memes about how hard it is to schedule TTRPG sessions, but there are a few things you can do to help reduce cancellations. Having one more player than you need is an excellent move – our Tuesday night group is 5 of us, which is probably one more than we’d ideally have for online play, but it means we can carry on playing even if one person drops out. This keeps the momentum and makes future cancellations less likely.

We also alternate GMs – if you can find a group to do this with, it really helps. Playing seasons of 4-10 sessions and then swapping over keeps everything fresh and, again, maintains momentum. If I was setting up a new D&D / traditional fantasy groups from scratch now I’d probably go for 5 players, with an explicit expectation we play with 3 or more – unless the canceller is the GM, you’re good to go.

Obviously, sometimes it doesn’t make sense to continue playing without all players – the first session of a new season, for example. When that happens, try to get a one-shot down, so that you’re still meeting up and playing – we did this recently with my “Star Trek” group (which I’m currently running Avatar Legends for – but we started playing Star Trek, hence the name) – a Trophy Dark one-shot which was a complete break from everything we’d been doing.

Go To Conventions / Meet-Ups

It won’t surprise you that I’m a huge fan of one-shot games, and I really believe if you only play in long campaigns you’re missing out. There’s lots of conventions and one-shot meetups advertised all over the place now, and going to a few of these to mix up the people you play with is a great opportunity to get more games in and broaden your experience of the hobby. If you can’t find one convenient for you, you can always post in your local Geek Retreat to see if anyone fancies a one-shot – I did this during the summer holidays a few years ago and ran more 1st level D&D for new players than I’ve ever done since!

Don’t ignore online conventions, too – or online gaming generally. Most of my sessions (about 70% of them, according to the spreadsheet) are online, and it’s a great way to maintain a regular group without having to leave your house.

Do Prep

Having a few ‘back pocket’ games is a great way to keep playing – those one-shots when your group can’t meet up rely on somebody having something ready. Luckily there’s lots of opportunities now to use starter sets and introductory adventures, so it doesn’t even have to be loads of prep – just read them and be ready to run.

If there’s a game you’re keen on getting to the table, ask yourself if a group came round tomorrow could you run it? Get the prep ready and you stand at least some chance of it happening. I’m at that stage now with both Ironclaw and Rhapsody of Blood, both games I’ve wanted to run for ages but never really got to the table – and without anything prepped for them, I’m unlikely to.

Solo Stuff

Don’t ignore some of the solo gaming options out there! I’m very much a newcomer to the solo RPG world, and I confess I still find it a completely different experience to group play, but there are some excellent games that work really well for solo play (Ironsworn and the new Rune are the ones I’m thinking of) and some great tools to play solo (I like DM Yourself for published adventures, and the Mythic GM Emulator is the old hand for it). I’m no expert, as I say, but a quick glance at youtube shows lots of people who are having great times doing this – and it’s a good way to master as system ready to prep a group game, too – so give it a look if you think you might fancy it.

So, can I keep up to my 140 expected games in 2023? I certainly hope so, and I’m trying to broaden out some of what I play too – there’s a few conventions coming up that I’m keen to try new games at, so I’ll keep you posted here with how they go.